In celebration of the 7th anniversary of the Bearded Odyssey, I am re-running the series throughout the summer. This chapter was originally published in The Daily Nebraskan on July 6, 2003.
A wise man named Aaron Shigley once told me, “The monuments and lakes and rivers — and everything else you think would be the focus of your learning — end up taking a backseat to the people you meet and the stories they have to tell.”
There’s a woman, sort of, named Rachel who works at a gas station in Pacific Beach. With all due respect, Rachel is a man doing a bad job at being a woman. He has long, stringy blonde hair and very bad makeup, consisting of a thick layer of pinkish foundation.
Every time I see him/her, he is wearing a similar, if not identical, long-sleeved button-up shirt with a knee-length skirt. To make it all the more awkward, he still has the body and the voice of a man.
Some people can pull off the transvestite thing quite convincingly; Rachel is the polar opposite.
This is not about judgment of lifestyle. Rachel has, for reasons it is not my place to guess, adopted a different identity. And I cannot even begin to fathom what kind of bravery or delusion it must take for him/her to go out in public like that. Rachel is not fooling anyone, and is in fact drawing attention to whatever struggle is going on — with no gain.
The corner of Grand and Ingraham is pretty much the heart of Pacific Beach — the most concentrated mass of trust-fund babies, Midwest escapees, surfer-wannabes and Navy kids, many of whose personal ethical codes are not above gawking and heckling poor Rachel.
I can claim no moral superiority. I have told many of the wonder that is Rachel — this unique gas station attendant whose majesty seems rivaled only by the Cash Register Wizard of 84th and Cornhusker. And the freakishness of Rachel must be rivaled only by his/her strength to follow that bizarre path of 1980s business fashion and seventh-grade makeup sense in an environment that would respond only with ridicule.
I’ve long wanted a photograph of myself with Rachel for all the wrong reasons. Rachel must be seen to be believed, therefore my stories of her are often not believed. Friends have seen the back of her head or a glimpse of her through a window, but I’ve been trying to come up with some clever scheme to justify a photo with her.
I’d rested on “The Scavenger Hunt” plan, in which I rush into the gas station (after checking that Rachel is on duty) and say “I’m on a scavenger hunt and I need to get a photo with a gas station attendant, can you help me?” Then he/she says yes and I grab a picture. Foolproof!
Some have cast doubts on The Scavenger Hunt Plan, but I wasn’t going to revisit Pacific Beach without revisiting Rachel and giving the plan a shot. On my way out of town, I stopped at the usual station and was overjoyed to see him/her on duty, and I grabbed my camera and headed inside. The adrenaline was pumping — this was the culmination of a period of Rachel-watching going back to October 2001.
But just as I went inside, he/she was relieved of duty at the register and went to do inventory on the candy bars. My plan was foiled; Rachel was busy, and all I could think was “I can’t change the story to ‘I need a photo of myself with a person doing inventory at a gas station!’” I’m sure, if not under the same panicked circumstances, I could have come up with a suitable cover, but then all sorts of customers came in and I choked.
So in my own farewell to Rachel, I approached him/her and asked “Do you have restrooms here?”
Not one to disappoint, Rachel replied in his/her trademarked gravelly voice I have mimicked for so many, “No! No restrooms!”
The defiant individuality of Rachel’s statement, particularly in the face of little-to-no acceptance, was in stark contrast to the rest of the weekend. Later that afternoon, I attended a barbecue in a lovely neighborhood at the base of the Hollywood hills with my cousin Lindsay. Though I was notably out-of-place as the only one who didn’t follow the All-Black-or-Lou-Reed-T-shirt dress code, I enjoyed wonderful food and better company.
The most fascinating part, though, was the phenomenon of Hollywood names. For the uninitiated, whom I honestly should be listed among, Hollywood names are the fake identities adopted by those who wish to reinvent themselves and erase their embarrassing connections to mundane places, such as Nebraska. Lindsay provided me with some of her favorite examples, including “Apollo Star.”
Near as I can tell, your Hollywood name is your commodity — your metaphysical real estate. It’s the key in the competition to get ahead of all the other reinvented personalities.
There was one fellow named Dammit (“Or Jeremy if there are kids around,” he said). Dammit was a cool guy with hair that looked like one of those mother-in-law plants and a zig-zag beard that almost looked painted on. We had a great conversation about all sorts of things, but I noted that Dammit avoided answering the “Where are you from?” question.
I figured I wouldn’t push it, but it struck me as odd that someone so seemingly self-confident and comfortable with himself would be so reluctant to acknowledge his origins, especially in conversation with someone who readily admitted being from Nebraska. Curiously though, Dammit knows a lot about interesting places to see in Wisconsin.
The beard, although useless as a beard, is effective as sunblock. By this I mean that my face is sun-colored with an awkward pale border around the hair zone. The commitment to the beard has been emotionally trying, particularly during this latest battle with the sun.
My left arm has already been in — and lost — its own battle with the sun, as my “trucker tan” has evolved into blisters and massive peeling (in spite of my SPF-45 sun screening, Mom) from all the driving. The left arm is a sitting duck. I’m looking forward to the days when I’m driving south or east and the sun is on the other side of the car.
Actually I don’t have anything extra for this week’s installment, other than to say that I received word as recently as December 2009 that Rachel still works at the same gas station.
As much as I was genuinely trying to do some philosophical exploration with this particular column, I think you can see a lot of immaturity. The extent of my awareness of transgendered people ended with cross-dressing; the idea of Rachel as a transsexual was just not something I knew about. I also feel like I was pretty quick to judge my hosts and co-partiers in Hollywood. But as I alluded to in the introduction of the series, I was in an odd place existentially at that time, desperate and sincerely reaching for some kind of awakening. And to be somewhat fair to my 2003 self, you don’t have those kinds of goals if you don’t have some growing to do.
I was also pretty eager to get away from the supernatural themes of the first two adventures. That stuff is fun and usually makes for good stories, but I did not want to create expectations for the rest of the series. I had no idea yet what was to come.